Christmas on the Civil War battlefield

December 28, 2012

Chip Horr

Contributing Columnist

Part II:

From the battlefield: “We got a Christmas dinner which arrived too late to do any good to us. Our friends in old Scioto County clubbed together with roast turkey, ducks, chickens, quail and also pies, cakes, jellies and fluids to send us a rousing Christmas dinner to show that, if absent, we were not forgotten. These things they packed into several large dry good boxes and directed to us. Mr. De Los Larkins got them to Washington without any trouble. Here red tape blocked all further progress and as these articles were mostly perishable, it was important to move them quickly with two more days to Christmas.

“Most of the Ohio delegation in Washington had left to spend the holidays at home, but we found John Sherman, then representative from the Mansfield district, who would do anything for you. Finally, he found that old war-horse, Ben Wade, who got an order from (Secretary of War) Stanton to forward these articles on to us, but that was New Year’s instead of Christmas and a warm spell had tainted everything so we had to eat hard tack instead of pound cake and sow belly instead of roast turkey. So much for red tape.” From the memoirs of Lt. James Gildea, First Ohio Light Artillery, Battery L (Portsmouth, OH).

Confederate Lt. Henry Douglas was captured at Gettysburg and confined to Johnson’s Island Prison (in Lake Erie) as Christmas 1863 approached. Douglas received several boxes containing items to make his confinement more bearable. “There came a carload of boxes for us about Christmas which, after reasonable inspection, we were allowed to receive. My box contained more cause for merriment and speculation as to its contents than satisfaction. It had received rough treatment on its way, and a bottle of catsup had broken and its contents very generally distributed through the box. Mince pie and fruit cake saturated with tomato catsup was about as palatable as “embalmed beef”. Then, too, a friend had sent me in a package a bottle of old brandy. On Christmas morning I quietly called several comrades up to my bunk to taste the precious fluid. The bottle had been opened outside, the brandy taken and replaced with water, adroitly recorded, and sent in. I hope the Yankee who played that practical joke lived to repent it and was shot before the war ended.”

From Harper’s Weekly, “by 1863, the Union blockade of the Southern coasts had made it nearly impossible for Santa Claus to visit homes in the South; scarcity of goods and the consequent high prices put both store-bought presents and raw materials for homemade gifts out of the financial reach of many Southern consumers. Quite a few mothers explained to their children that even Santa Claus would not be able run the formidable blockade.”